A central lesson from secondary school reform efforts to date is that structural reforms such as small learning communities (SLCs), interdisciplinary teams, and even flexible scheduling do not automatically or instantly transform secondary schools into high performing learning organizations. Realizing the potential of these reforms requires that they be activated by groups of adults with the will, skill, and time to translate these opportunity structures into personalized, responsive, and effective learning experiences for students. In the words of one school reform leader, “small schools are the launch pad, not the rocket ship.” As the secondary school reform movement matures, there is growing understanding that it is now time to build the rocket ship and to develop the renewable energy sources needed to achieve the moonshot of our generation—graduating all young people from high school prepared for success in college, career, and civic life.
Common Planning (CP) is a reform that is emerging as an essential component of the rocket ship, and a fuel source as well. While recognizing that no one reform holds the key to improving schools, we argue that Common Planning is a linchpin practice in transforming secondary schools—an underutilized yet critical social technology necessary to creating learning environments that proactively identify and address the diverse and changing needs of adolescent learners. The following sections elaborate the promise and challenges of Common Planning and offer recommendations for stronger, more widespread implementation and rigorous study.
What Is Common Planning and Why Is It Important?
Brooklyn Generation School opened in 2007 as part of a restructuring of the former South Shore High School in Brooklyn, New York. It currently serves about 230 minority and low-income students in grades 9 to 11 and expects to grow to more than 700 students as it adds a 12th grade and middle grades over the next several years. The school recently drew national attention for its unorthodox schedule. At Brooklyn Generation, teachers instruct only three classes a day, get 2 hours of Common Planning with colleagues each afternoon, and have a highly reduced student load—as few as 14 students per class. The schedule was created with support from the United Federation of Teachers, the local American Federation of Teachers affiliate, enabling teachers to retain their benefits as union members and district employees (Sawchuk, 2010).
A distinguishing feature of Brooklyn Generation, and other break-the-mold high schools, is the institutionally expected and sanctioned practice of adults meeting together on a frequent and regular basis to review and craft plans to improve the academic engagement and achievement of the students they serve. This practice of Common Planning represents a major departure from traditional high school routine where teachers typically are assigned individual time during the school day to prepare for their classes and meet with their peers only infrequently in subject-area department or schoolwide faculty meetings. Although research continually decries teacher isolation and links collaboration among adults in schools with higher levels of teacher commitment, satisfaction, efficacy, and improved student outcomes, CP has remained a marginal practice found only in leading edge “innovation” high schools.
Common Planning now is receiving increased attention in light of its potential to advance three social processes viewed as central to creating effective learning environments for adolescents:
1. Personalization: A personalized learning environment is characterized by strong, positive relationships between adults and students. Adults understand and are responsive to the needs of individual students, and students experience tangible caring and support from adults who know them well and assume responsibility for their advancement. High schools have always had adults who extend themselves to students, acting beyond the dictates of their roles as administrators or classroom teachers to reach out to, advocate for, and provide extra support to struggling students. Studies indicate that these relationships can make the difference between whether students succeed or fail, and further indicate that a sense of collective responsibility for student achievement among school staff as a leading feature of high schools that produce higher and more equitable achievement outcomes for students (Johnson, 2007; Rhodes et al., 2000). However, few high schools are intentionally organized and resourced to ensure that these relationships and extended roles are established and enacted as a matter of course. Common Planning provides time, opportunity, and expectation that teachers will place student needs and progress at the center of their work and assume collective responsibility for student learning.
For example, CP enables groups of teachers who teach the same students to identify very early in the school year those who are falling behind. They can then use their CP time to meet with the student (and family members) to discuss strengths, identify challenge areas, and develop an action plan coupled with appropriate supports to help the student get back on track. This course of action builds relationships and communicates to students in no uncertain terms that their success is worth the time and attention of every adult who interacts with them in school every day.
2. Instructional Coordination/Integration: Without CP, adults working in smaller learning communities and teacher teams will have difficulty transforming the fragmented nature of students’ high school experiences. Staff in reforming high schools typically engages in summer retreats and monthly meetings designed to enable administrators and teachers to develop shared norms for behavior and academic performance, grading rubrics, and even interdisciplinary curricula. More frequent planning time is needed throughout the school year, however, to ensure implementation is both consistent and adjusted to meet changing conditions and the diverse needs of the particular group of students (and adults) in the school/SLC/team that year. Research in schools using teacher teams with Common Planning finds that high levels of CP (at least four team meetings per week with each meeting lasting at least 30 minutes) are associated with higher student achievement gains, as measured by state math and reading test scores, compared with schools with less frequent or no CP (Flowers et al., 2000).
3. Peer Learning and Continuous Improvement: Common Planning has long been cited in school reform literature as a primary vehicle for teachers’ ongoing professional development and for securing strong implementation of organizational, curricular, and instructional reforms (Desimone, 2002). Recent studies of human capital development in schools find, not surprisingly, that knowledgeable and skilled teachers increase the skill and knowledge of those with whom they interact (Jackson and Breugmann, 2009). When well implemented, CP provides structured time during the school day for teachers to share instructional challenges and best practices and to participate in sustained development activities that meet the standards of the “new professional development” (i.e., the activities are job-embedded, focused on relevant topics, and allow time for practice and reflection over time) (West, 2002). The provision of Common Planning time has been identified as a core principle of successful resource allocation in high-performing high schools in part because it helps build an active professional learning community among staff (Miles and Darling-Hammond, 1998).
Common Planning also has been linked to lower turnover among teaching staff, and lack of CP has been cited as a common source of dissatisfaction among teachers who transferred schools. According to one national study, having CP time with other teachers in their subject area or participating in regularly scheduled collaboration with other teachers on issues of instruction significantly reduced the risk of teachers leaving their posts by about 43 percent (Smith and Ingersoll, 2004). Among teachers who transferred schools, two-thirds cited lack of planning time as a reason for leaving (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). It follows that a more stable teaching staff is more able to build the trust and communication necessary for open reflection, inquiry, and continuous improvement.
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